Several years have passed since we have heard a strong voice from the South Asian Left. Although Progressive South Asia will never die and be reincarnate itself in various forms, to see it alive and breath freely in written form from the U.S. of all places via The Karma of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad was nothing short of refreshing. For all of us of the South Asian “desi” diaspora as well as the “White World” that is interested in analyzing Indian-Pakistani- Bangladeshi Americans (and more), this book is a must read. And for desis in the U.S., to leave this book for the archives of the unread (as a relic of an age of Socialists), would be a mistake.
Karma of Brown Folk
There is so much historical information in this book on how, when, and where South Asians initially came to America that it should be read by most of our youth from high school on through college particularly as a source for or topic of reports. The references cited are eye-opening: “The entry of desis in large numbers after the passage of Civil Rights Acts not only brought them into the model minority category but also set the terms for the desi view of Black Liberation.” But do we often wonder as a whole as to why we have earned this “model minority” label? Is it because we choose to suffer racism in silence?
“Why is it that all Indians are so smart and well behaved?” Piyush Jindal, confronted with this question by his elementary school teacher, paused and then, “being a smart aleck, told her that it was the food.” Or as the author observes, “These are not only statements of admiration. Apart from being condescending, such gestures remind me that I am to be a perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America.” And he adds, “The struggles of Blacks are met with the derisive remark that Asians don’t complain; they work hard—as if blacks don’t work hard”.
Certainly our community has received kudos from the right wing in this country as none other than Senator Jesse Helms is quoted praising the Indian community in America. But is there a problem or cost associated with this praise? Prashad reveals, “Those Asians not gifted in the technical arts see themselves as failures and suffer the consequences of not being able to rise to the levels expected of their genes.”
But going back in history was such praise always forthcoming? As the book points out “After Dr. Bhagat Sing Thind was refused citizenship on racial grounds in a landmark 1923 case (The United States declared that Thind was a “nonwhite Caucasian”), he lectured in the late 1920s on such topics as “Jazz Mania: Its Cause and Cure and the Psychology of Relaxation,” “The Sacred Hum of the Universe,” and “Can We Talk with the ‘Dead’ and How?” Vijay Prashad observes that “The presentation of ‘yogic science’ as a panacea for alienation opened the doors to numerous Godmen and lecturers such as Super-Akasha Yogi Wassam, a Punjabi who offered techniques for life (in anticipation of Deepak Chopra)”.
Have desis really tried harder to fulfill the requirements of the “White Sahibs” through the use of this spiritual model? Or as of today, are the powers that be genuinely impressed enough by all of us because even though “There was little recognition in the media that this was an artificial community, that most of those that migrated here came through the filters of the INS. This was the cream of the South Asian bourgeois.”
Now if we ignore the term “bourgeois” because it is out of fashion, there is certainly some truth to this observation in Northern California’s Silicon Valley and other hi-tech havens throughout America currently experiencing the problems of demand side labor economics! But what about groups like New York’s many South Asian predominantly Pakistani Taxi Drivers who also get a lot of attention in this book?
In a pensive mood Vijay Prashad writes, “In the United States the bulk of the desi community seems to have moved away from active political struggles towards an accommodation with this racist polity. The bargain revolves around the sale of desi political soul in exchange for the license to accumulate economic wealth through hard work and guile”. A bit too harsh perhaps but the following observation by the author sure rang some unpleasant yet familiar bells in my head: “In the United States the desi sunders the world into two: the outside world, the world of work-place, is a world of capital that must be exploited as much as possible, and the inside world, the world of the home, is a world of culture that must be protected and cherished.” Does this sound familiar to some readers and are we really being honest if we deny it? This may be more of the immigrant’s experience and not that of American born and raised South Asians.
There is just too much information in “The Karma of Brown Folk” to cover in this short review. One can only hope to project the flavor of this work to the readers here. As the purpose of the book is not entertainment, the seriousness that Prashad brings to the South Asian American identity in the making, is sometimes difficult to fathom. But the best part is that the author does not tell us to quit while we are ahead and doing well within the American experience. He is asking us to be more aware and not take things for granted.
We ourselves cannot deny the frequent racism that we experience as desis in America. “You Hindu bitches, why did you have to move in here?” (heard by a desi woman in Queens New York) is a part of reality that South Asians of any faith may have to face. And let us be honest that we have yet to formulate a collective response to such hate. We need to be closer to the black experience in this country today to understand what we may be up against whether we like it or not. Vijay Prashad’s “The Karma of Brown Folk” although overly sympathetic to the Left, helps us get a good start out of our societal cocoons.
Ras H. Siddiqui is a Pakistani-American writer and journalist based in Sacramento.
is a very detailed historical account of the advent of South Asians onto the shores of North America, their experiences and their impact on the U.S. “salad bowl” or “melting pot.” This detailed history was one reason why I found reading this book to be a rewarding experience. The other being what we desis choose to ignore everyday, how we as a group are perceived by white society while embarking on our own unique, sometimes difficult, American journey in the process.